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Interview: Behrooz "Bez" Shahriari (Stuff by Bez) on Player Interaction and Where to Find Inspiration

Neil Bunker
United Kingdom
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[Editor's note: This interview was first published on Diagonal Move. All photos provided by Bez. —WEM]

Today Bez Shahriari, designer of Yogi and founder of Stuff by Bez, joins Neil Bunker from Diagonal Move to discuss inspiration and player interaction in games.

Board Game Designer: Behrooz Shahriari

DM: Hi, Bez, thanks for joining us today. You are the designer of Yogi, Kitty Cataclysm and the ELL Deck system. How did you get started in games design?

BS: I fell in love with video games at a very young age. One of my earliest memories is of the ZX Spectrum and being amazed that my siblings could affect what was happening on the television screen.

My love of video games eventually resulted in studying video game design at university. Unfortunately, during the second year the focus moved away from design onto programming. I failed that year and ended up going back to Glasgow, discovering BoardGameGeek and a local game group soon after.

At that point, I had been using packs of traditional playing cards as a tool to improve my general game design skills while creating video games. As I began to develop more of an interest in modern board games, I was inspired to turn my creative efforts towards physical games.

Initially I showed these only to friends. Then, about eight years ago, I moved to London and discovered Playtest UK, a national group of like-minded people that meet to help each other develop games. The members basically agree to play each other's games, discuss exactly why they are rubbish, then work together to improve.

I was able to get my first game, In a Bind, finished only due to Playtest UK and their willingness to work on my ideas with me.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
In a Bind was rebranded as Yogi

I wanted a game with chaos and silliness that lasted 20 minutes. There was card stealing, card swapping, scoring points — but I had this one card that said: "Stand up. If you have the card at the end of the game score 10 points; if you sit down, give the card to another player."

During a playtest, it was commented that this was the only card involving a physical action. It didn't fit. Either make a physical game or don't, so I went all out for silliness. I had people running around the table, spinning in circles, hopping, even doing sit-ups during playtests.

Gigamic picked up the design in 2016 and rebranded it as Yogi. It has gone on to be very successful, selling over 100,000 copies internationally. I'm happy to say that Yogi is currently paying my rent, and I can now concentrate on being a full-time games designer.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
The ELL Deck

DM: You have also designed a game system, the ELL Deck. Can you tell us more about that?

BS: My second release was the Wibell++ system, which has recently changed its name to the ELL Deck. This system is based around a deck of cards, with each having a pair of letters, border art, and a number on them. Some games use all these features, some use only one.

On release, it shipped with five card games in a tuck box. There are now over 26 games, with a new "headline" game added each Bez Day (1st August).

The original game was Wibbell itself. In this game the aim is to win cards by shouting out words that use letters from both cards in a central display and cards in your display.

I then used the same card deck to create Faybell, a storytelling game and [thing=230774]Grabbell[/thing], a dexterity/pattern recognition game. As I thought of more and more ideas for games using just this deck of cards, the concept of a system began to form in my mind.

The ELL Deck has very much become my life's work. I will release at least one new core game in the system each year until I retire. Since release, the system has had a deluxe edition, and I've recently finished a Kickstarter for Categorickell, a version with graffiti style art.

The system isn't just a means of publishing my own games. I also hold a design competition each year that allows players to contribute to the system. The only limit on entries is imagination.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Kitty Cataclysm

DM: Where do you find inspiration?

BS: Inspiration can come from anywhere, from a game you like, a theme, a mechanism, a name, a design challenge or component limitation, or from any combination of these.

One of my prototypes is a party game called A game, wherein you blether (a Scottish word meaning to talk at length at a fast rate; ranting, hypothesising, narrating or speaking in some other manner, without necessarily making very much sense)… and then the title goes on for over two thousand words, covering the box.

It was inspired by a BGG GeekList that highlighted games with long titles. The intention of the GeekList wasn't to inspire a game, but it certainly inspired me. Now it's a ridiculous thing with 550 illustrations!

Coupell, from the ELL Deck, was inspired by the idea of being in a romantic couple. The aim is to achieve two scoring piles that have an equal number of points in them. It's a balance that can be achieved only through real co-operation.

I've also been working with Tiz Creel on a game called Seize the Power. It has a mechanism whereby each player has a set of individual rules to follow, but it is up to them if they follow those rules. If they wanted to, they could even give or sell their rules to another player. This mechanism combined well with its theme of discrimination.

From gallery of Bunkelos Board
Seize the Power prototype

DM: Stuff by Bez games feature a high degree of player interaction. What is it about this aspect of game design that interests you?

BS: Interaction in games is a very interesting subject. There are still means to interact in even the most strategic games.

Think about a game like Go. That game is played in near total silence. All communication happens through the medium of the game. A full 19×19 game of Go is a huge strategic conversation. If my move doesn't result in a reaction from the other player, have I contributed sufficiently to the strategic conversation?

Some interaction is with game mechanisms more than the other players. I remember playing Bohnanza. It's a trading game where you would expect there to be high player interaction; however, much of the time is spent focusing on the cards, not the other players.

At the other extreme are large group or party games which are usually intended for seven or more players.

Kings College, in London, commissioned a piece from Sarah Jury and I for their exhibit "Genders: Shaping and Breaking the Binary". It's called Challenging Structures, and it responds to academic research that explores how changing views on gender and gender identity are reflected in law. What is the impact of changing the gender on your passport, for example?

The last playthrough had thirty people, split into four countries with different ideologies. It includes player characters that are written to be transgender or trans-phobic. Given the sensitive subject matter, we had to include a means for players to stop interacting if they wished. Interacting with my words and actual actions places these Live Action Roleplays (LARPs) and similar party games in a different category.

Physical and digital interaction are being combined by using in-game apps, and the boundaries of what even counts as a "board game" is being pushed by games like The Mind and Wavelength.

I think we are reaching a point where it's now possible to draw on game principles used in LARP or even sports and still be loosely within the umbrella of "board game".

From gallery of Bunkelos Board

DM: Any advice for new designers?

BS: Although it pains me to say this, any designers thinking about moving into publishing need to be aware that marketing and logistics are the most important factors in being successful. In this crowded world, you need to be able to make people aware that you exist and build relationships with retailers. You also need to do research into the marketplace. Are there games like yours available already?

Ask yourself: "Why am I creating this game?" You don't need to follow the standard path of design, pitch, publish.

There is massive value in making games for small limited print runs or even just a single copy given to a friend as a declaration of love.

Not everything has to be mass produced.
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